When Nvidia introduced their GeForce RTX 20 series to the world in 2018, the graphics card market was shaken to its core.
Although the idea for ray tracing had existed for a while before the actual announcement from Nvidia, to see it executed so knowledgeably was like witnessing a revolutionary event. This market-shifting move was further strengthened by Nvidia’s decision to release their best representation of their innovative technology straight away.
Two years on, that RTX 2080 Ti is still the best card on the market.
However, supreme performance doesn’t come at a cheap price. As a matter of fact, technology wasn’t the only thing being stretched to its limit.
The eye-gouging $1200 price point for RTX 2080 Ti was unheard of in the consumer market, as generally anything above $1000 was considered enthusiast grade. In this article, we’ll explain the benefits and disadvantages of RTX and help you decide whether or not it’s worth the money for you.
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What You Get With RTX
Ray tracing wasn’t the only thing that Nvidia innovated, although it was certainly the most hyped-up feature. The cynical PC hardware enthusiasts were at first skeptical about the idea and were quick to point out and make memes mocking the technology from the moment it was released.
Where they were sort of right at the beginning was in their assessment of ray tracing not bringing a leaps and bounds improvement in the looks department, but upon closer inspection, even those hard-set in their beliefs had to admit this was different.
In the past, reflections and lighting effects existed and we could see them, but the truth is that those were just a part of an elaborate smoke and mirrors illusion. The static lighting effect would be effectively hard-coded to show that some reflections and shadows can look nice, but that wasn’t the real deal.
The game developers were burdened with the task of making their games look properly shaded and illuminated with these tricks, and the fact that they managed to confuse even the most hardened enthusiasts is just a testament to their brilliance.
What RTX does is bring the real-time light particle simulation to the table. The game world is now able to get rendered dynamically, as the player traverses it, getting completely immersed. With those visual effects getting rendered realistically as they are, we’re slowly but surely moving toward hyper-realistic video game graphics.
When light particles and reflections are calculated with RTX, the engine takes into consideration the material from which the surfaces it reflects light off of are made. So for example, effects are rendered in a different manner if the reflecting surface is water when compared to glass. Likewise, the light will look different when it hits a marble floor and sand.
Below is a tech demo for ray tracing capabilities as showcased for Battlefield V at CES 2019.
On a really interesting note, RTX isn’t the first time the audience has been able to enjoy ray tracing. In fact, most modern high-budget movies with high-budget CGI effects feature ray tracing. Although Compleat Angler from 1979, which was produced by Bell Labs engineer Turner Whitted, is credited with the first usage of ray tracing, it wasn’t until 2013 and Pixar’s Monsters University that the technology was fully adopted.
So how come Pixar did it in 2013 and gamers had to wait until 2018?
The answer is simple – Pixar is a huge company with an enormous budget and was able to afford server farms to render their movies. And even then, it took them months. The fact that Nvidia was able to deliver this tech during that time showcases how groundbreaking ray-tracing actually is.
Of course, it would be misleading to say that what we’re getting with RTX cards is the same as what Pixar used in their animation. Although there aren’t those illusions used to properly render lighting effects, there are certain tricks used to lower the computational requirement.
The player’s camera will trace a path through a single pixel to whatever object is behind that pixel and to the light source. Ray tracing also takes into consideration if the object’s exposure to light is slightly disturbed or even completely obstructed. Below is a great visual representation of how that works.
This is accomplished using a bounding volume hierarchy traversal which, as the name suggests, is an algorithm for traversing a BVH tree structure. Although this greatly reduces the computational requirement, there is still a very noticeable surplus there.
GPUs that don’t have additional ray tracing hardware (any non-RTX cards), would be required to use shaders which would lead to a tremendous bottleneck.
Enter RT cores.
Nvidia’s simple solution to that added computational need is to assign dedicated cores to those calculations. The RT cores hold two separate units where one handles the bounding box tests, and the other one performs ray-triangle intersection tests. This significantly reduces the strain on the GPU and allows it to perform other tasks more effectively.
Deep Learning Super Sampling – DLSS
Nvidia brought several advancements for AI calculations to the RTX cards, but the most prominent use can be seen with DLSS.
DLSS can be looked at as an extension of the anti-aliasing technology, although it works differently. Anti-aliasing is a technique that reduces the jaggedness of edges upon rendering, but with DLSS, this is done without overbearing the shader cores. This difference allows the same effect, but without the performance hit.
For the same reason we fear technological singularity, we are excited about DLSS. That might’ve sounded oddly terrifying, but there’s no reason to fret – DLSS is a friendly AI that can optimize the look of your games.
However, this tech is still young and developing slowly, but surely. The biggest problem is that game developers need to enable the support for it and essentially have Nvidia’s AI run through the game, analyze the images, and automatically upscale it to a higher resolution.
With RTX 3000 series being just around the corner, the rumors are heavily suggesting that DLSS 3.0 will be a lot more developer-friendly and that we will have much better opportunities to see what it’s capable of.
Big Tech Equals Big Price
Admitting that Nvidia’s technology in their RTX series is amazing is fine, despite what the internet may have to say about that. What isn’t amazing is the mere fact that there just aren’t that many games out there that can fully support everything RTX cards have to offer. But swinging back to the good side, it appears that industry is thoroughly impressed by stuff like ray tracing and DLSS and that as time goes on, we’re more and more likely to see this tech fully utilized.
As Nvidia is firmly sitting on its GPU throne, they are at liberty to dictate the price points for their cards and when they’ll introduce the world to the never before seen technology like real-time ray tracing. It would be foolish to not take advantage and stretch the limit of consumer’s wallets.
Although that RTX 2080 Ti Founder’s Edition sits at mind-numbingly $1200, it’s worth saying that it does come overclocked out of the box. But, even that might not be a proper price-to-performance ration.
What cards like RTX 2060 or RTX 2070 may have going on for them is that new RTX 3000 series is looming and with that, their prices are likely to go down and prove to be a really solid gaming option with all those shiny new features.
In fact, with AMD releasing their RDNA 2 this year as well (set to feature ray tracing), we might see a decrease in price for current Nvidia top-tier GPUs.
In 2020, RTX might still be too expensive for what it has to offer, but as the year comes to a close, there might be several cheaper RTX options out there that are worth picking up.